Viewpoint: Trust in government declines - who cares?

Gallup graph trust

Congress has set a new record. Never in the history of the Gallup poll have the American people had less confidence in the House and the Senate.

It's quite an accomplishment. But it isn't unique, in America or internationally.

Almost every major public institution and sector of the economy in America has lost public confidence since the 1970s. Only the military is more trusted. The presidency and big business have held steady.

The story is generally similar in the UK.

A major survey published last year, British Social Attitudes, showed that Parliament, politicians and parties are held in roughly the same disrepute as their American counterparts. A recent report by the Economist found that broadly, "the UK's institutions have been gradually weakening over many decades".

Start Quote

When citizens trust that they have well-protected zones of political and economic liberty, trust and confidence in politicians and governments isn't especially important”

End Quote

The public relations giant Edelman conducts a large annual survey of major economies to come up with what it calls a Trust Barometer. In 26 countries, the survey found that 16% trusted their governments a great deal, higher than the US and the UK, but hardly a profile of confidence.

In the US, civic entrepreneurs for a decade have tried to address what is often called the Trust Gap, though worries about the lack of civility or intense partisan polarisation get at the same thing - government held in low esteem.

A few weeks ago, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve and one of the few people in the Twitter age to hold safe Wise Man status, launched a campaign focused entirely on trust in government.

Does trust matter?

The great assumption here, of course, is that the decline of trust and confidence in government is a very bad thing.

But is it?

That interesting question comes from Russell Hardin, a political scientist at New York University writing in the Journal of Trust Studies (yes, I've subscribed since I was just a lad).

In a fascinating article called Government without Trust, Hardin notes that generally mature democracies get along just fine even when the public is sceptical and disapproving, which is lucky because there is no turning back the clock to a more trusting time.

Hardin reminds us: "The beginning of political and economic liberalism is distrust." Historically, America's brand of democracy was designed precisely to throw sand in the gears of government, to institutionalise distrust.

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The truth is that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree”

End Quote James Madison

And free-market economics trusts markets, not governments, institutions or leaders. In America at least, we are wired for scepticism.

And, Hardin argues, short of a crisis, high levels of trust are not necessary for government to function or maintain legitimacy.

When citizens trust that they have well-protected zones of political and economic liberty, trust and confidence in politicians and governments isn't especially important.

If the big issues of war and peace, public safety and avoidance of economic disaster are handled with a modicum of competence, incompetent handling of marginal and very complicated issues isn't debilitating, just obnoxious.

Indeed, growing distrust may be partly a result of the lack of fundamental issues and threats.

"The significance of contemporary domestic political issues in the advanced democracies may be less than it once was and yet conflict over current issues may be more fractious - not necessarily more heated or deeper but merely more fractious," writes Hardin.

Sceptism to contempt

Just as mammals with over-abundant food supplies play with their food, politicians in prosperous, stable, safe societies can afford to play with marginal issues in overly fractious argumentative ways.

Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi walk through an honour cordon at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the Capitol in Washington 15 May 2013 Distrust within government is more problematic than distrust of government

And citizens can afford to do the sensible thing - scorn them.

From a very lofty level, we can probably stipulate that our distrust and dislike of government now doesn't threaten the stability, legitimacy or even basic competence of our government.

And it is probably well to remember how fundamental the wariness of government power is to democracy - and especially the American political tradition.

But that isn't saying very much and it seems cavalier to dismiss the growing disapproval of government.

In the US, the low station of government is part of a far broader decline of trust and confidence in all institutions, as documented in the recent Gallup poll. The trend began in the early 1970s, the days of Watergate and Vietnam.

It isn't primarily a political phenomenon. It is tied to the rapid pace of social change and shifting values in that period, and to the weakening of the traditional ways people acquire what social scientists call social capital.

It is part of a trend in America and most other democracies where growing prosperity and material well-being is not matched with increased happiness and emotional well-being.

The breakdown of trust in government also now seems to coincide with a breakdown of trust within government. That does affect the competence of government to address issues that most would agree are more than marginal.

The political polarisation of the country now is probably exaggerated and was certainly more severe, for example, during the Civil War, Prohibition or the 1960s.

But the polarisation of the political elites and especially the Congressional political parties is dire. Thoroughly solvable problems are going unsolved. Talented and qualified people refuse to go into public service. A healthy Madisonian scepticism has been transformed into contempt.

It probably is true that public respect for government will never return to pre-1970s levels. Those were times of clearer values, less complicated issues, and a much smaller, less connected globe.

But settling for today's dismal discontent is hardly a reasonable alternative.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Part of the problem, I think, is that we expect too much of our political leaders, forgetting that they are made of the same vanities and flaws as the voters that elect them.

    Otherwise, FrTed summed up the problem nicely @24, where he wrote "Until politicians show respect themselves, how can they expect it from others?"

    We DO seem to get the governments we deserve for all of that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.


    It's not about being "partisan". Obama was already elected as the Democratic candidate. The BBC should have given equal spotlight to all the Republican candidates --not just Mitt Romney (the establishment candidate).

  • Comment number 39.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The snake in the film 'Jungle Book' reminds me of ALL politician when he sings that song "Trust in me"!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    In case readers might draw the wrong conclusion from this article, note that while it may be true that it's harmless for us to not trust our governments, that in way implies that it's harmless for them to do things to us (such as warrant-less spying) that we trusted that they weren't doing. Don't read this and say, "Aw trust -- Guess we'll never have that," and then forget about the Snowden issue

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    35. Algol60

    And like virginity, can only be lost once, never to return.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Whether of governments, institutions or individuals, trust cannot be assigned or assumed; it must be EARNED.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    33. Michael_USA

    If one started blaming the media for being partisan, then where does one stop: Fox?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I don't trust the BBC either. The BBC censored Ron Paul (as did most American mainstream networks) during the last U.S. Presidential elections. Ron Paul was perhaps the most honest, patriotic politician in American history --yet the BBC gave it's full attention to Mitt Romney (the establishment candidate).

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    19 Hours ago
    Of course I dont trust the Gov! They take my money and monitor my phone calls worse than an x-wife! Add religion and its an inquisition!


    Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Once elected - in both the UK and the US - representatives must put aside partisan self-interest and represent their entire constituency - putting the best interest of their nation above all others. This is not occurring and is the principal reason for elected representatives' low approval ratings. Democracy only works when the best interests of the nation are paramount.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    American government is really run by government employee unions. They support politicians that support government employee unions e.g. IRS union overwhelming supports Democrats. The Democrat politicians dramatically expands the most feared and powerful domestic agency, the IRS. A symbiotic relationship. Luckily here in America we still have guns. I think they will be in use sooner than later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Government is made up of politicians whose only job is to get re-elected (on lies). Also, it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in - all those nameless faceless career politicos that are not elected but sit in cushy positions in the corridors of Whitehall and DC. If the truth were known, it wouldn't hurt us but it would ruin big business and put quite a few out of a job

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Imo, those with the most contempt towards the Obama administration and towards current congress did not have healthy skepticism during the elections or afterwards. They have long made excuses for either him or it and part of their growing contempt may be for themselves. Today they have either removed the symbol from their cars or they are still trying to justify their previous, unearned trust.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    ANY government that is 'BOUGHT' can NOT be trusted!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Trust a govt which spies on people? Or politicians who are blatantly in the pockets of the Corp$?
    You're kidding.... right?
    Of the people by the people is a principle which seemingly is extinct. True Democracy is transparent, not shrouded behind secrecy & lies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    One of the problems is when a large percentage of those who vote are dependent on the the state for an income (earned or unearned) there is a challenge to democracy. Turkeys being asked to vote if we will have a Thanksgiving this year.

    It is an absolute duty to look after those in need, but it should be a helping hand not a way of life, or we all end up like the city of Detroit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Once, you may not have agreed with your adversaries but you respected their point of view.There is now no honour in politics and no respect

    Certain professions command respect: doctors, nurses, fire services, maybe teachers, but politicians have joined the ranks of those universally loathed: lawyers and tax collectors

    Until politicians show respect themselves, how can they expect it from others?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Our problem is that our governments are not representative of all of us.

    There is something badly wrong when extreme power can be 'bought' with a 'majority' of just 25-35% of eligible voters.

    Our representation should be proportional. That would make it more difficult and more expensive to control our so-called democracy.

    But not impossible so, sadly, we must be ever vigilant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "Talented and qualified people refuse to go into public service". Got it in a nutshell. Any institution is only as good as the people in it. The writer could have added "honest", too.


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